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Special Collections and Archives

Tips and tools for researching primary sources in Special Collections and Archives and online

Frequently Asked Questions

When I come to the archive, do I have to exactly know what I want to look at? Or should I just have a basic topic idea?

Special Collections and Archives staff and student assistants are can help you find and use material relevant to your research. If you are having trouble figuring out what we have to look at, we can help! Our job is to help you navigate the archives to find what you are looking for.

Once we've worked together to determine what exactly you want us to pull for you to look at, we can set up an appointment for you to come to the archives or get reference photos.

Are the archives open to everyone? Can you walk in and look at material?

Yes, Special Collections and Archives are open to everyone! We recommend setting up an appointment to meet with us in advance so that we can make sure to prepare for your visit. Most of our archives are stored offsite and require advance notice to pull the material. 

What is the oldest record in the archives to date?

One of our oldest document is from 1478! It is one page of Plutarch's Vitæ parallelæ illustrium virorum, which was printed by Nicolas Jenson in Venice. Here is the catalog record.

Our earliest Cal Poly records are dated from 1901, the year that the school was established.

Do you have recent material and collections?

Yes! We are continuously collecting, capturing, and maintaining current resources and material. For example, check out our archived campus webpages at Cal Poly's Archive-It

Can we photograph things?

Yes, you are welcome to photograph the materials for your personal research. If you would like to use a photograph or scan of the material for your paper or any publication, you may need permission to publish. Many material in Special Collections and Archives are protected by privacy and copyright laws. The archives staff can help you navigate copyright.

How long are you allowed to look at certain materials or stay inside the archives?

You are welcome to to stay as long as you need during our open hours. Learn more about visiting the archives.

How do we submit our requests for documents to be pulled?

Cal Poly Special Collections and Archives has an email,, where you can send your requests. Or you can call us at 805-756-2305. Please email your requests in advance. Some of our material is housed offsite and may require a few days to retrieve. (If you email us on the weekend, we won't see it till Monday, so email us the previous week if you want to come in on Monday).

How would we cite something from the archives?

Learn more here

Are the archives only related to Cal Poly?

No, the University Archives is just one of our collecting areas. Areas of focus include Central Coast archives, architecture (such as the papers of architect Julia Morgan), Ethnic Studies archives, Environmental archives, and California wide archives. You can see a list of many of our collections here. We also have rare books, underground comix and artists' books, which you can learn more about here.

Can we use laptops in the archives?

Yes, you are welcome to use laptops in the reading room. Electrical outlets are limited and first come first served (so it is helpful if your laptop is charged).

What is the best way to narrow down all the information?

This is the million-dollar question! For class research papers, we recommend starting broad--casting a wide net--about a theme, topic, or question. And once you find 10-12 primary sources that relate to your question, pick 2-3 primary sources that you want to focus your paper on. 

Sometimes you don't find materials related to the question you have. There just might not be materials in the archives, and you might need to reformulate your question or ask a broader question. 

Is there always an archivist present?

Yes, our reading room is always staffed by either an archivist or student assistant who can help with any questions you have.